Ever play with a prism? When sunlight strikes the prism, it gets split into a rainbow of colors. Prisms un-mix the light into its different wavelengths (which you see as different colors). Diffraction gratings are tiny prisms stacked together.

When light passes through a diffraction grating, it splits (diffracts) the light into several beams traveling at different directions. If you’ve ever seen the ‘iridescence’ of a soap bubble, an insect shell, or on a pearl, you’ve seen nature’s diffraction gratings.

Scientist use these things to split incoming light so they can figure out what fuels a distant star is burning. When hydrogen burns, it gives off light, but not in all the colors of the rainbow, only very specific colors in red and blue. It’s like hydrogen’s own personal fingerprint, or light signature.

Astronomers can split incoming light from a star using a spectrometer (you can build your own here) to figure out what the star is burning by matching up the different light signatures.


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